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Urban Brain Lab

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The Lab

The Urban Brain Lab is an experiment in resetting the relations between the sociological and neurobiological sciences. Funded by an ESRC ‘Transforming Social Science’ grant, the Lab investigates ‘urbanicity’ – the connections between the social and the neurological lives of urban citizens, with particular attention to mental health. The relationship between urban life and mental health has been a topic of longstnading interest in the social sciences – but is also now receiving particular attention within the neurobiological and psychiatric sciences, as investigators try to see whether the effects and process of city living can actually be measured at the level of the brain. The Urban Brain Lab is an attempt to put these two interests together. It asks: can urban sociologists and neuroscientists work together, in order to better map the complex interactions between the socio-political life of the city and the development of psychiatric problems? But as it pursues this question, the Lab is also trying to show that there may be room for a different kind of relationship between sociology and the biosciences. Aligning itself with what the microbiologists and physicist Carl Woese has called ‘a new biology for a new century,’ the Lab asks: what would it mean to also come up with ‘a new sociology for a new century’?

Some background

Sociology has always had ideas about the ‘nature’ of the human subject at its heart. So what are sociologists to make of recent research in the biosciences that has significantly advanced and changed our understanding of the kinds of creatures that human beings are? Such research has not always lived up to its promises. Still, we now know a great deal more than we used to about the biological possibilities through which human lives are shaped or constrained, and within which human subjects are made and re-made. In particular, the new brain sciences – neuroscience and neurogenetics – have proposed new ways to think about the emergence of mental health problems that can blunt and alter those lives, and radically re-arrange the experience of being an individual human subject. Yet, at the same time as this neurobiological architecture is being sketched out, evidence increasingly shows that it is fashioned by the body’s internal and external environments, by social relations, by culture, and by styles of living.

This takes us beyond the familiar idea that psychiatric diagnoses are ‘social constructs’ – and into into a dynamic space in which social relations leave measurable biological and neurobiological traces, in the same moment that neurobiology modulates, enables and constrains social action and interaction. We are thus at a potentially transformative moment in the relationship between the social and biological sciences. The new possibilities are already being explored by some in social psychology. In the cultural sciences and humanities, neuroscientific discoveries have sometimes been uncritically embraced. Yet many responses from the social sciences – particularly sociology – still respond through the familiar discourse of critical suspicion. Of course we should not abandon our critical faculties. But at the Urban Brian Lab we want to argue that the moment has come to risk something beyond criticism – a ‘revitalized’ style of knowledge in the social sciences that will produce transformative sociological impacts on research within the life sciences, and on end users of that research.

The process

To investigate this basic idea, the Lab offers an exemplar from one traditional area of sociological research in which a ‘revitalized’ sociology might be especially practical, thinkable and impactful: this is the relationship between urban life and mental health. We chose this topic because the relationship between urban life and mental health is a prominent area in neuroscience that wanders into an area of longstanding sociological expertise. But at the same time, there is already a subterranean relationship between biology, mental health and urban living in the sociological archive, which might serve as the grounding for the revitalized sociology we advocate. From the classical social theorist Georg Simmel on, there have been many reflections on ‘mental life in the metropolis’ in social theory, and many speculations about the relations between ‘external culture,’ ‘techniques of life’ and ‘bodily existence.’

So our questions are: how might an urban sociology bring the neurological lives of urban citizens back into the centre of its research programme? And how can sociology have an impact on the end-users in this exemplary area of biological and neuroscientific research? More generally, we also want to know: what would the research agenda for a ‘revitalized’ sociology look like? And how could it collaborate with the contemporary research agendas of the biological and neurobiological sciences? We are currently undertaking conceptual and historical work in order to reanimate re-animate sociology’s biological ghosts – clarifying the relations between sociological and biological styles of thought, identifying the reasons behind sociological resistance to a renewed relationship with the life sciences, and seeing what might be learned for the research agenda of a ‘revitalized’ sociology. In 2014, we will hold two intensive ‘re-vitalization’ workshops, with leading scholars, in order to generative a collaborative engagement between the sociology of urban life and the neuroscience of wellbeing in city living. The goal is for these workshops to lead directly to the development and piloting of an empirical research project for a revitalized sociology of the mental life of the metropolis

Further info:

Come back soon for details of our website and workshops. In the meantime, feel free contact Des Fitzgerald ( for more information.

Lab Members

Nikolas Rose – Principal Investigator

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Nikolas Rose is Professor of Sociology and Head of the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London. He has published widely on the social and political history of the human sciences, on the genealogy of subjectivity, on the history of political thought in sociology, on law and criminology, and on changing rationalities and techniques of political power.

The Urban Brain Lab draws together two interest that Nikolas has developed in the last decade or so: the first is an interest in the conceptual, social and political dimensions of the contemporary life sciences and biomedicine. Through this work, Nikolas has paid particular attention to the new brain sciences, working to describe the development of a sophisticated ‘neuro’ complex, and its entanglement in many contemporary techniques for understanding, healing, governing and intervening-on human subjects.  The second is a commitment to understanding what a human science, and a social science, can and should look like in a biological age; in his recent work, Nikolas has focused especially on the history and the present of biological thought in sociology – asking, in particular, how we might more rigorously illuminate the contemporary landscape of crossings between sociological research and a more ‘emergent’ conception of human biology.


Ilina Singh – Co-Investigator

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Ilina Singh is Professor of Science, Ethics and Society, and Director of Research, at the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London – where she is cross-appointed at the Institute of Psychiatry. Her work examines the psycho-social and ethical implications of advances in biomedicine and neuroscience for young people and families, where she has sought to assess the benefits of biomedical technologies for children, enable evidence-based policymaking in child health, and bring social and ethical theory into better alignment with children’s social, emotional and behavioural capacities.

Focusing especially on ADHD, Autism, and neuroenhancement, Ilina has published widely on children and young people’s engagements with, and understandings of, neuropharmacological treatment and enhancement.  Through the Urban Brain Lab, she especially extends her commitment to exploring what a social science can contribute to what we know about the dynamics of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ in human development – and especially  to the development of disorder – in an age of post-genomic biology.  In her recent work, Ilina has particularly sought to create ground in which social scientists can move ‘beyond critique’ in their encounters with the biological sciences, while still maintaining a commitment to understanding the ways in which social and ethical phenomena are deeply intertwined with our individual biology.


Des Fitzgerald – Co-Investigator/Postdoctoral Research Associate

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Des Fitzgerald is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London. He completed his doctoral work in 2013, where he focused on attempts to understand the autism spectrum neurobiologically – describing the ways in which neuroscientific knowledge negotiates the space between the biological and diagnostic definitions of autism, the hopes and disappointments of high-tech bioscience, and the intellectual and affective labours of laboratory research.

The Urban Brain Lab complements Des’s emerging publication profile, which focuses on how psychiatric diagnoses are understood across ‘social’ and ‘cerebral’ domains. A frequent cross-disciplinary researcher, Des is interested in the politics and pragmatics of collaboration between the social and life sciences – and is committed to understanding what is intellectually and emotionally at stake in transdisciplinary research. Through the Urban Brain Lab, he is especially working to extend his interest in such moments of ‘entanglement,’ and his commitment to elaborating an intellectual programme that that can grasp, comprehend, and diffract,  the deeply/simultaneously socio-logical and bio-logical intertwinements  of human life and suffering.



Selected publications by lab members, exploring the core themes of the lab

Rose, N. (2013) ‘The human sciences in a biological age,’ Theory, Culture and Society, 30 (1): 3-34

Rose, N. (2013) ‘Democracy in the contemporary life sciences,’ BioSocieties, 7 (4): 459-472

Rose, N. and Abi-Rached, J. (2013) Neuro: the new brain sciences and the management of the mind. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Singh, I, (2013) ‘Brain Talk: Power and Negotiation in Children’s Discourse About Self, Brain and Behaviour.” Sociology of Health & Illness 35 (6): 813–827.

Singh, I. Sinnott-Armstrong, W and Savulescu, J. (2013) Bioprediction, Biomarkers, and Bad Behavior: Scientific, Legal, and Ethical Challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fitzgerald, D. (2013). ‘The Affective Labour of Autism Neuroscience: Entangling Emotions, Thoughts and Feelings in a Scientific Research Practice.’ Subjectivity, 6(2): 131-152

Fitzgerald, D. (2013) ‘Review Essay: Philippe Descola – Beyond Nature and Culture. Somatosphere: Science, Medicine and Anthropology

Singh, I. (2012) ‘Human Development, Nature and Nurture: Working Beyond the Divide. BioSocieties 7 (3): 308–321

Rose, N. (2008) Psychology as a social science Subjectivity, 2008 (23): 1-17

Rose, N. (2000) ‘Governing Cities, Governing Citizens’ in E. Isin, ed. Democracy, Citizenship and the City: Rights to the Global City, pp. 95-109, Routledge, 2000

Walsh, P., Elsabbagh, M., Bolton, P. and Singh, I. (2011) ‘In Search of Biomarkers for Autism: Scientific, Social and Ethical Challenges.’ Nature Reviews Neuroscience 12 (10)

Singh, I and Rose, N. ‘Biomarkers in Psychiatry.’ Nature. 460 (7252): 202-207